The Midwest takes its mammoth roadside attractions seriously, and North Dakota is no exception. The Peace Garden State boasts supersized sculptures such as the world’s largest Holstein cow, sandhill crane and buffalo—and those are just the ones along Interstate 94.
Little did I know when I first started working as a ranger at the Lewis and Clark Interpretive Center in Washburn, N.D., that another delightful giant (who I once had the honor of playing in my fourth-grade class’s Lewis and Clark musical) would lurk nearby.
The bronze Dog of Discovery was installed in 2006 along the Missouri River near the Fort Mandan replica and visitor center. He obediently sits greeting visitors and looks as if he might be awaiting a juicy bison treat from Capt. Lewis himself.
Lewis never documented where or when he bought Seaman—many theorize he purchased the pooch in Pittsburgh during the summer of 1803 while equipping the expedition—but he does mention paying $20 of his own money for the dog.
Seaman earned his keep as a hunter, retriever, sentry, and lifeguard.
The dog proved his worth at the journey’s very beginning. Less than two weeks after leaving Pittsburgh, Pa., and heading by boat down the Ohio River, Lewis spotted on a couple of days a migration of squirrels swimming across the river. He sent Seaman swimming after them. The dog killed squirrels and swam with them in his mouth back to Lewis. In his usual unique spelling style, Lewis penned in his journal, “They wer fat and I thought when fryed a pleasant food.”
Seaman was certainly an alert sentry. On the evening of June 19, 1805, after the expedition made camp in the area of today’s Great Falls, Mont., the dog’s barking may have scared off a buffalo that seemed ready to charge willy-nilly through the camp.
The greatest danger in that area, however, came from grizzly bears. They were everywhere, always a threat, lurking about day and particularly at night, probably attracted to the explorers’ campsites from the smell of cooking food. “…my dog,” stated Lewis’ journal entry of June 27, 1805, “seems to be in a constant state of alarm with these bear and keeps barking all night.” Seaman’s good use of his vocal cords probably helped the explorers avoid many bear encounters in the darkness of night.
Expedition members came to refer to Seaman as “our dog.” It’s likely there was great concern on April 11, 1806, on the Columbia River not far from what today is Portland, Ore., when Indians stole Seaman—most likely for the dog to become their meal.
In his journal, Lewis recorded his reaction: “…sent three men in pursuit of the thieves with orders if they made the least resistance or difficulty in surrendering the dog to fire on them.” After a 2-mile chase, the three men saw the canine kidnappers, who, upon spotting their pursuers, abandoned the dog alive and fled.
A dog of a different color?
Seaman will probably forever be represented as a modern-day black, chunky Newfoundland, but the breed in his era was almost universally black and white after what is known today as the Landseer Newfoundland after English painter Edwin Landseer. (Landseer famously captured the breed’s distinctive coat pattern on canvas during the 1800s.)
Contemporaneous artwork and descriptions of the breed also indicate a sportier build than today’s Newfoundlands. No records remain of Seaman’s appearance beyond his impressive size.
Lewis held his furry friend in such high regard that in July 1806, on the expedition’s return trip to St. Louis, he named a creek in present-day Montana “Seaman’s Creek.”
Interestingly, a Masonic museum in Virginia at one time apparently housed a dog collar that may have been donated by William Clark in 1812, although the original is now lost. The inscription on the collar stated: “The greatest traveler of my species. My name is SEAMAN, the dog of captain Meriwether Lewis, whom I accompanied to the Pacifick [sic)] ocean through the interior of the continent of North America.”
Besides the fact that this tail-wagging trailblazer was large, what does any of this have to do with giant roadside attractions?
The biggest dog statue
Recently it occurred to me that Fort Mandan State Historic Site just might have the world’s biggest Newfoundland dog. I reviewed my own photographs and scoured the internet for Newfoundlands in public art.
Seaman is the most oft-sculpted member of his breed and certainly the greatest traveler of his species. St. John’s in the Canadian province of Newfoundland and Labrador only has a life-sized Newfoundland statue. Then there’s the salmon-eating incarnation of Seaman (part of the “End of the Trail” statue) I encountered during a 2002 family spring break trip to Seaside, Oregon. But that was no competition either.
The closest in stature to the State Historical Society’s Seaman I could find is the one included on artist Pat Kennedy’s Lewis and Clark monument, which has duplicate casts at the Sioux City Lewis and Clark Interpretive Center in Iowa and at the Lewis & Clark Boathouse and Museum in St. Charles, Mo. I contacted staff at both sites and requested measurements of their statues. That Seaman is approximately 6 feet, 3/16 inch tall, with a head circumference of 7 feet.
Armed with this knowledge, I measured our own pup with a measuring tape and a stepstool to determine dimensions. Our dog nosed ahead with a height of 7 feet and a head circumference of nearly 8 feet.
I contacted the Newfoundland Club of America, which had been involved with the statue’s 2006 installation and reinstallation following a 2011 flood. The representative who responded was delighted. Our Seaman is now on the map in the Newfoundland world.
So, when you’re looking to go on an adventurous expedition, come see what all the fuss is about, and snap a selfie with the great Dog of Discovery himself. Woof! Woof!
And where is the smallest Seaman?
Seaman, three inches tall at the shoulders.
That’s what you’ll find in statuary along the Columbia River in Washington. It’s likely the smallest of Seaman representations.
The statuary of Seaman, Meriwether Lewis, William Clark, and Sacajawea is at the Dismal Nitch Safety Rest Area on Highway 401 (also known as the Lewis and Clark Trail Highway) near Point Ellice close to the mouth of the Columbia River in Washington. The rest area is the home of the high-relief bronze sculpture artwork and monument by sculptor Gareth Curtis and mason Bill Clearman.
In the above photograph by Jim Sayce, Seaman seems to be having a good ol’ time studying what one of the explorers is pointing at—others of the expedition trying to canoe through huge swells.
The artwork reflects the dire situation the explorers faced during a bad storm and high waves near the mouth of the Columbia River. They were stranded there on the shore Nov. 12, 1805. During low tide, they moved into a cove that became known as the “Dismal Nitch”—and dismal the area was.
The following is William Clark’s journal entry for that time, shown here with the captain’s unique spellings intact:
“It would be distressing to See our Situation, all wet and Colde our bedding also wet, (and the robes of the party which Compose half the bedding is rotten and we are not in a Situation to supply their places) in a wet bottom Scercely large enough to contain us, our baggage half a mile from us and Canoes at the mercy of the waves, altho Secured as well as possible, Sunk with emence parcels of Stone to wate them down to prevent their dashing to pieces against the rocks.”
Here are informative articles about Seaman published in We Proceeded On, the quarterly journal of the Lewis and Clark Trail Heritage Foundation:
- “Call Him a Good Old Dog, But Don’t Call Him Scannon” by Donald Jackson, August 1985, Vol.11 No. 3, Page 5.
- “Seaman’s fate” by John D.W. Guice, August 2000, Vol.26 No. 3, Page 3.
- “Seaman’s Fate? Lewis’s dog probably survived him” by James J. Holmberg, February 2000, Vol.26 No. 1, Page 7.
- “A Dog’s Life in the Far West: Speculation on the fate of the big Newfoundland than accompanied Lewis & Clark” by John C. Jackson, February 2011, Vol.37 No. 1, Page 19.
About the author:
The author of this article, Shannon Kelly, is the interpretive resource specialist at the Lewis and Clark Interpretive Center and Fort Mandan State Historic Site in Washburn, N.D.. She holds a bachelor’s in history from the University of Idaho and a master’s in public history from Colorado State University. Kelly has written a history of the Sound of Idaho Marching Band for the University of Idaho and is a contributor to the Lewis & Clark Trail Heritage Foundation’s journal We Proceeded On. She is currently at work on a book exploring the three winters of the Lewis and Clark Expedition. Much of this article was originally published May 9, 2022, in the State Historical Society of North Dakota blog.
A thank you goes to Jim Sayce for providing the photograph and information about the smallest Seaman and Dismal Nitch. Jim is the incoming president of the Lewis and Clark Trail Heritage Foundation.